By Scott J. Moses
Liphart watched as the soldier he knew only as Benson vomited at the edge of the sprawling field. The tips of the wheat glistened gold in the French summer’s sun. The craters from some long-loosed mortar barrage peppered the farm in foxholed divots. A would-be paradise tainted by that oldest of bastards: war.
Get me home, Lord, Liphart prayed, shielding his eyes from the sunlight seeping through his fingers. Use me, a humble tool for Your purpose.
Benson rose with a groan, wiped the vomit from his lips. “Those airsickness pills,” he said, hunching over again. “Not agreeing with me…”
The rustling field drew Liphart’s gaze, sent his mind elsewhere.
Tall Virginian grass blew in a rasp near the forest. An injured doe disappeared into the thick pines. His father swore and, towering over him in the blue haze of that cool morning, yanked the rifle from Liphart’s trembling hands. “Come on, mister good for nothin’,” he said, the thigh-high grass parting with his father’s form. “Goddammit, boy. If you’d just put her down clean, like I told you…” Liphart—seven years old, tears welling in his eyes, snot running from his raw nostrils—looked up at his father. A whine threaded his voice.
“I can’t find it, Pa,” he said as his chafed, bare hands sifted through the medley of damp forest floor. “I can’t!”
His father turned, glaring, and Liphart’s breath stuck in his iced-over lungs. “I don’t wanna see you without that shell in your hand, hear?” His father made for the tree line, his voice retreating, though loud on the wind. “We carry our mistakes, boy.”
Liphart cried and sniffed snot into his burning lungs. His hands combed through the wood chips and leaves, panning for the lost shell.
Benson lurched to his feet, and the movement pulled Liphart from the memory. From the lone farmhouse up the dirt road beyond the dipped chicken wire fence walked a German soldier. Liphart lifted his rifle to his eye, heart slamming in his chest. Not deserted after all, he thought, though beneath the long German’s greatcoat, he could make out the contours of a US Army uniform. The helmet they all wore on his head. The M1 Garand they all carried slung behind him. Benson had his rifle trained now, pulled the bolt back.
“It’s the kid,” Liphart said, lowering his weapon. “In Kraut gear.” Benson sighed and upended his rifle, eyes stuck to the approaching man—or boy. Probably can’t even order a beer, Liphart thought as the kid shambled to them on the barren road. But here he is. Here we are.
“Hell of a way to get killed!” Benson yelled through his cupped hand. Liphart smirked at the irony. So is volunteering to jump into German-occupied France. So is standing in the open road, yelling in English. If there were Germans here, they’d moved on. The absence of cracking gunfire punching holes into them, or their severed limbs floating atop the smoke and dirt of mortar blasts, was proof enough.
The kid, Private Morner, removed a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, the German greatcoat flapping with his strides. He took one in his mouth, removed his lighter with trembling hands. “Y’all should see,” Morner said in that southern drawl Liphart couldn’t quite place.
“What is it?” Liphart asked, and looked past him to the farmhouse pocked with dirt and shrapnel. The stones at its base ashen-black from a long-quelled flame.
“I don’t know,” Morner said, flicking the lighter alive. “You’ll have to tell me.”
* * *
A table slid before the house’s entrance bore a bowl of rank soup swarmed with flies, their buzzing a fervor within the confines of the stone echo-chamber. Morner’s lips grew tight around his cigarette, and he pointed to the floorboards nearest the door. Liphart paused, sidestepping the long streak of purple-maroon littered with bullet casings. Benson crouched low, his eyes following the smeared crimson through the open doorway.
“I didn’t see it at first,” Morner said, eyes stuck to the floor. “Went right for the Nazi spoils near the bed there.” Liphart gave it a cursory glance. A thin-mattressed bed on a metal frame in the room’s corner. A lighter, pencil, hammer, chisel, a photograph of a smiling woman—all meticulously lined on the nearby windowsill. A blood-specked gray button-up spread out on the floor. Two boots at the foot of the bed, one upright, one collapsed. “Wasn’t ’til I pulled the coat on that I saw it,” Morner said.
Before Liphart could ask, Morner nudged the farmhouse door shut with the barrel of his rifle. The wood was coated in jagged, crystalized purple, like sap had burst from a tree and still clung to it. It shimmered in the sunlight let in through the nearby window. Morner set his rifle against the wall, reached in the greatcoat’s pockets, and withdrew handfuls of chipped shards similar to the lacquer grasping the door. “Coat’s full of the stuff. Wonder what it is?”
Benson unsheathed his knife and chipped one of the bullet casings free from the flecked crystal atop the floorboards. He plucked it up, turning it between his fingers, held it to Liphart, who took it in his own. Liphart’s breath stilled as he examined the freed shell, and his eyes swept to the semi-shut door, to the bullet holes punctured through the wood and crystal there, and as dusk crept over those still-swaying wheat fields, he again remembered hunting with his pa in the Virginian woods, how they’d tracked the wounded doe for two miles. He hadn’t understood how his pa did it, though he assumed it was something he’d learned in the Great War.
“Let me see it,” his father said, but Liphart couldn’t take his eyes from the sorry, bleating doe. Its black eyes gazed up at him. Breath wheezed through its blood-laden nostrils. It kicked out now and then, hooves longing for purchase.
His pa lifted the back of his hand, and Liphart jerked, raised his hands in defense. “Here, Pa. It’s here!” he said, his hands shaking, the loosed bullet casing in his ungloved fingers. He glanced at the wheezing doe, the blood running from the wound in its torso. His pa lowered his hand, met Liphart’s eyes, and extended the rifle to him.
“Clean up your mess,” he said, and when Liphart remained still, in shock at the doe which had started screaming, his pa forced the rifle into his numbed hands. Liphart stood there, vision blurred from tears, snot stuck to his nose and lips in the crisp autumn air, unable to pull the trigger, despite the animal’s pleas. His pa huffed, took a swig from his flask, and walked off the way they’d come.
Liphart held the rifle until his arms burned, gave way from strain, and after pissing himself above the bellowing creature, turned in pursuit of his pa, who he could just make out through the coagulated pines. The doe moaned as he left it there in the mud. Those wheezed breaths stuck with Liphart, tailed him through his dreams—even those of Marianne and Winnie.
He was a long way from his pa and those woods now. He’d grown and traded a hunting rifle for an M1 Garand; his oversized wool cap for a United States Army helmet.
Staring out over the rustling wheat, Liphart thought of Marianne. The way Winnie had cradled her that first week. The way Marianne had gripped his wife’s hand, the two of them in matching blue dresses, somber expressions, as he boarded the bus for war. He’d missed her birth, and now, fighting this insidious evil overseas, he was missing her life.
Benson rose from the floor, flicking the casing to the uneven boards there. “What are your orders?”
“S’cuse me?” Liphart said, Morner straightening in his periphery.
“Your stripe. The color,” Benson said, pointing to Liphart’s sleeve, the patch sewn there.
“Hold on, boys,” Liphart said, heart slamming in his chest. “I’m a private, same as you.”
“Private First-Class, sir,” Morner said, stance reminiscent of boot camp those months ago.
Fuck, Liphart thought, and guilt rose in him like smoldering embers. Forgive me, Lord. He crossed himself, catching Benson’s straightening smirk.
“Orders, sir?” Morner asked again. As if PFC was any sort of leadership role. Liphart cursed the discretion of his commanding officer. How he’d seen fit to promote him before they’d flown to England.
“Let’s hunker down for the night,” Liphart said, looking to them in turn. “Any of you have a map? I lost mine in the jump.”
“Sir,” Benson said, shrugging his pack from his shoulders.
“What should I do, sir?” Morner asked.
Liphart moved to the door, shut it, and looked Morner toe to head. “Shed some weight.”
Liphart sighed, resigned to his new role, examining the iridescent shard between his fingers. “Souvenirs are one thing, but walk around wearing that and you’re twice as liable to get shot.”
* * *
Night fell in a wash over the French countryside. Liphart stood at the table overlooking a map of Normandy. “Either of you see any signs when you touched down?”
Benson shook his head. “Trees and fields ’til I found you.”
Liphart’s eyes met Morner, who rested his rifle near one of the windows. Shook his head as well.
“I think when the C-47s hit that German artillery they panicked, and with all the fog, who knows where they ended up dropping us.”
Benson nodded. “All I know is the jump near tore my arms off, ripped my pack and chute right up from under me.”
“We were going too fast,” Liphart said. “I figure the company’s scattered all over Normandy.”
“So,” Morner said. “We’re lost?”
Liphart sighed. “Come morning, we’ll follow the road a ’ways, meet up with those we can find.” He wasn’t sure if he’d said it to comfort himself or Morner, but it looked to do the opposite as the boy slid down the wall onto his bedroll.
I’m not trained for this, Liphart thought, settling himself in the corner near the window. “One awake, two asleep. Three-hour shifts. I’ll take first.”
* * *
A moonlit haze shone through the window where Liphart sat in the house’s corner, the wheat field’s brushing static just beyond the thin-glassed pane. From what he could tell in the blue night’s shroud, Benson and Morner were awake as well. So much for two asleep, he thought, watching the other men sitting upright against their respective walls. But how could anyone sleep here? Utterly surrounded in a hostile land.
His thoughts drifted to his modest house in Virginia. How the wide-open hills and trees flew to the horizon, how the sunset nestled into those pines each night. How they’d watch most every one, as a family. The church he, Winnie, and Marianne attended each Sunday before his departure. “Daddy,” Marianne said, dark hair done up in bows, Bible in her small hands as the service let out, “can we get an ice-cream?” He bent down, caught Winnie’s tears as she wiped them away, biting her lip. “Marianne,” he said, eyes level with his daughter. “I just couldn’t bear to tell you sooner, love. Your mother was right, I should’ve. I know I should’ve…” Liphart remembered her tears, how she’d dropped the Bible right in that church parking lot. Not advancing, not recoiling, just—still. Winnie gripped Marianne’s shoulders from behind, and Liphart’s eyes grew heavy with tears.
“What do you mean?” Marianne asked, one hand gripping her dress, one hiding her mouth in the way she did when she was scared or uncomfortable. “You’re leaving?”
He sighed, met her eyes. “Going there will bring me closer to you, love. I know you don’t understand, but by going now, I may avoid being told to go later.” He was doing it again, what Winnie often accused him of: treating their five-year-old like an adult. She looked up to her mother, who gripped her shoulders, and as she wailed in his arms, he thought of his pa leaving him there in the woods with that doe, and despite vowing to raise her better than his old man had raised him, his pa’s words echoed in his mind: “We carry our mistakes, boy.”
Liphart closed his eyes, crossed himself. “And it is He who carries us.”
The mattress’s springs whined. Liphart opened his eyes to Benson sitting upright in the bed. “You got God, Liphart?” Benson asked, following it up with a quick, “Sir?”
“That I do, and He has me.”
Benson chuckled. “You know, I’ve looked all over, but I haven’t seen any God.”
“You know,” Liphart said, adjusting himself in the chair they’d pulled to the corner. “I’ve looked all over and can’t find where I asked your opinion.”
Benson smirked, lifting his hands in surrender.
“God’s all around us,” Liphart said, staring through the glass of the window there, those fields bathed in blue. “He saw us through that jump, didn’t He? I’m here. We’re here. So I’ll keep praying, for me, you, all of us.”
Benson sighed, shoulders drooping. “Would’ve been a mercy to let us die in the sky. Spare us all this.”
All this, Liphart thought. We’ve only been here one day…and he remembered the night prior. Struggling to clip his hook to the wire above the column of terrified soldiers filing out of the C-47. Exploding German antiaircraft guns booming from below. How he’d watched a nearby plane absorb a yellow-streaked shell, engulfing in flame as the engine vomited smoke. He remembered the way it screamed as it fell to France, the banshee wailing of that iron-clad behemoth cast from heaven. The lush fog lit by open-mouthed artillery, hell itself rife with lapping tongues of death. The roars of unseen devils projecting molten-leaden screams.
“It’s harder,” Benson said, “not believing. Knowing this is it.” He leaned against the wall. “I wish I could. Believe in God, someone looking out for us. I just can’t.”
Liphart opened his mouth, inhaled, but Benson continued. “But hell…? I believe in hell, all right. Remember how they taught us to land from a jump? How during drills Captain would say, ‘You just broke your legs, Private,’ when someone touched down wrong? When I was about to land, I saw a soldier below me hit the earth dead wrong, heard the bones snap despite all the noise above me. I touched down, shed my chute, and ignored his screaming, the way his legs bent out at the knees. He begged for help, looked me right in the eye as I walked past…I didn’t even look back, just left him there. Figured his screams would draw Germans, get me killed…”
Liphart stilled with Benson’s words, felt the cool of those Virginian woods in his hands, his lungs and throat.
Benson continued, “I just…I left him there. See, sir, my hell is here, with me now, and more than like, here on out. We live in hells of our own design. When we die, that’s the end of it. A sweet relief…but life is waking hell.”
We carry our mistakes, Liphart thought, glad to have God then. Knowing He would see him home, to his girls, if only he’d be a vessel for His purpose.
“Your girl, or something?” Benson asked, pointing to Morner and the photo he held. A sorry attempt in hiding his tears.
“My sister, Millie,” Morner replied, stuck to the photograph. “She died when we were small.”
Benson sighed, massaging the back of his head. “Look, kid, I could be wrong…Maybe we go somewhere after. What do I know? I’m just some guy.”
Morner nodded, tucked the picture away, and stretched out on his bedroll.
Liphart sat looking through the window, thinking on Benson’s words. Wasn’t he some guy too? Didn’t he have the propensity to be just as wrong? When had God spoken to him in the way He did Abraham or Noah?
No, he thought, and his eyes grew heavy with the rustled song of insects in the field beyond the road.
* * *
Liphart held his breath and eased the window open another inch, allowing his rifle an unobscured view of the child at the wheat’s edge. He brought an eye to his sights, saw her head—just below the surface of the brushing field, a tattered, soiled dress, feet bare in the blue glow of the moon. Liphart glanced over his shoulder, whispered, “Benson, Benson.” No response. The air danced and mauve soot floated within the space. Liphart inhaled, and the metallic tang on the air crawled down his throat into his lungs. Burning tears formed in the corners of his eyes. Has the air always been this thick? He turned to the window again, stood, and made for the door. Rifle in hand. His throat a dried husk. Be with me, Lord.
Having walked the cratered soil and overstepped the wire fence, his boots met the road.
Displaced by Germans? he thought. Used to live here, perhaps?
He stood there, watching her yank a rope, its end lost in the sea of wheat. She faced away from him, tugging with both hands, grunting. Breath held, Liphart made it to the road, his boots crunching the loose dirt and gravel.
“Hey, there,” Liphart said, hand raised. She whipped around, still holding the rope. Liphart near buckled at the knees. Beneath the cropped brunette hair lay the green eyes of his daughter. Marianne? he thought, and though he blinked the impossibility away, her name clung to the edge of his tongue.
The girl stared into him, and a breeze lifted the bangs from her face, blew the tattered dress atop those bare feet in the dirt. Her fingers twitched around the rope. Liphart withdrew the chocolate bar they’d been issued before the jump from his breast pocket.
“Here,” he said, holding it out to her. She tilted her head and drew a series of arcs in the dirt with her toe. Liphart laid his rifle down, tore the wrapper from the bar, bit into it, rubbed his stomach. “Good, see?”
She paused her drawing, inching near until she stood within arm’s reach. The rope grew taut in her hand, its end still swallowed in the field behind.
“Daddy, can we get an ice-cream?”
The girl snatched the bar from him, and Liphart couldn’t help but smile.She nibbled at its edge, staring up at him with those familiar eyes.
“There you go,” Liphart said as he rose to his feet. “Eat up, hon.” God had placed him here for this, he was sure now.
She stared at him, face dirt-laden, and as her nose bled, an acidic tang permeated the air. High-pitched ringing exploded in Liphart’s ears and he fell to his knees, gritting his teeth against the knives in his skull. Blindly swiping for his rifle, squinting at the girl tugging her rope again, again, again—until something jutted from the field’s edge. Hands….head…arms…swarmed with flies. Not just a corpse, a miasma of rot.
The ringing heightened and Liphart clenched his eyes as warmth ran from his ears. Marianne flashed through his mind.
A test, he thought. From God.
He opened his eyes to an undulating corridor, a dark hall littered with suspended purple debris, breath quickening as he lifted his rifle. He swallowed, and the floating purple flecks gave way as he ventured farther. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he thought, wrapping the rifle’s strap taut around his forearm. The floorboards creaked, and Liphart paused, straightened. Pained, wheezing breaths rose in a swarming echo. God, be with your servant, he prayed, heart pounding with the narrowing walls, constricting with each step. He peered into the darkness, and a bellowing snort enveloped the corridor with unholy sound, reverberating in his chest as he ran, stumbling, through the violet-hued dark.
The void throbbed around Liphart as the landscape transfigured. Explosions snarled through the open hatchway ahead of him and the other paratroopers in the column. The C-47 made small on the hell hurled from below. The trooper at the open hatch tapped his helmet, pointing to the wire above them, and the men hooked themselves up as instructed. The plane jerked from a nearby explosion. Liphart trembled in the barrage, and the reverberation of the shells traveled up through his boots. He swiped his hook at the wire but couldn’t attach. It evaded him again as the plane banked hard, slamming him against the leftmost wall. The trooper near the opening knocked his helmet and screamed something Liphart missed under the chorus of death beyond the plane’s hull, repeatedly thrusting his hand to the flashing sky.
Liphart’s heart thrummed in his ears. He couldn’t hold up the column. Men could die because of him. One by one, troopers leaped from the plane. The C-47 rocked, engines roaring as Liphart inched toward hell’s open maw, still unable to latch to the wire.
“I can’t get it,” he said, voice drowned in the maelstrom. “I can’t latch!” He tried to turn, but hands grasped his arms, legs, pack, hefting him up, pushing him forward, his boots kicking for purchase. He screamed, thrashing as the line of soldiers dwindled ahead of him.
“I can’t latch!” Liphart said, crying to the one slapping his helmet with a smile. The jumper in front of Liphart glanced back and the man at the opening drew his pistol, placed the barrel to the trooper’s head. The pistol flashed, and the soldier fell through the opening. Liphart pissed himself as his father smiled, his eyes glistening black orbs, wearing the Great War uniform worn in those photos strewn through Liphart’s childhood home. His pa’s toothless smile oozed tar, his mouth widening for the onslaught outside. He beckoned Liphart forward with the pistol.
Liphart tried to latch once more and—free of the unseen hands now—collapsed. Searing breath on his neck stilled him, and he saw the blood spray over his shoulders in his peripheral vision. He could place those pained groans anywhere. “We carry our mistakes, boy,” his pa said, and with a second flash, Liphart fell from the plane screaming, somersaulting again, again, again, groping for his reserve chute through the night rife with hellfire. The ground raced to meet him and he closed his eyes, cheeks rippling with the speed of his descent.
Winnie stood at the sink in the violet lowlight of their kitchen, hammer and chisel in hand. God brought me home, Liphart thought as the space reaffirmed itself. Temples throbbing, he slung the rifle to his back. He inhaled her perfume—roses and cream. A metallic bitterness on his tongue. Those brown curls bouncing with the tink, tink, tink, of hammering chisel through the layered crystal atop the counter, stretching up the wall. The lilac sun shining through their lone kitchen window. On its sill, a lighter, pencil, and photograph of Liphart stepping off the bus in his uniform, bag in hand.
Liphart smiled. “Win, baby, I’m home.”
She lifted her head, inhaled the soot floating amid the poorly ventilated room, and peered into him with blackening eyes. Her mouth a long, open O. She worked at a translucent bulge of mineral grown over the sink’s nozzle, a pile of chiseled shards atop a nearby cutting board. She hammered again, again, again, and the piece broke free, fell to the counter with a thump. She stared at the chunk, mouth wide though speechless, and as Liphart rounded the table, he noted her bloody hands. “Win,” he said. “Baby, your hurt—”
Winnie turned from him and her jaw fell lower, swung suspended as she croaked into the hallway. The wooden squeal of a chair.
Marianne sat herself at the table, and as Winnie lifted the board of shards from the counter, Liphart stepped toward their daughter. Winnie thrust the chisel in her offhand toward him and he stepped back, narrowly avoiding it—crashed hard to the floor. Her eyes never left his as she poured the crystalized debris onto the plate their daughter held, the eyes and mouths of his girls shimmering voids. Marianne looked down at Liphart from her spot at the table, her plate dripping red, and said in his own voice, “Eat up, hon.”
The sensation of falling. His stomach’s ascent barred by the stone lodged in his throat. He fell forward, and the wheat’s hushed song returned. He placed his hand on the trembling farmhouse door, reverberating on its hinges.
Morner stood above Benson in the purple knee-high powder, bayonet fixed to his rifle. Benson shivered with each of the boy’s thrusts. Liphart slid his rifle from his shoulder, trained it on the kid thrusting away.
Morner yanked the blade from Benson and straightened, hands red with blood, his lips a frozen smile as he turned, facing Liphart. “You were right,” he said, unblinking. “Millie came back…with us now…said to kill—”
Liphart’s arms shook with the rifle’s recoil. The round punched a hole in Morner’s chest, flinging him into the bedframe. Liphart shook, breath stilted, rifle heavy in his numb hands. He saw tall Virginian grass. The stench of his pa’s cheap whiskey permeated the room. Morner hunched there, half-sitting at the foot of the bed. “I can’t hear Millie…”
Liphart shot him again, and when the boy’s head lolled, Liphart dropped the rifle, fell to his knees.
Where are they, where are they? he thought, eyes brimming with tears, clawing through the churning violet for the loosed shells.
The windows rattled in their panes, and as the walls shook the dust from themselves, the dead slunk to the floor reanimated, fish torn from water. Liphart took up his rifle and turned to the doorway. The girl floated inches above the road in a tunnel of amaranthine light, the dust and dirt in miniature cyclones as a corpse flailed on the end of her rope, its limbs wild in heaven’s tunneling aura. She held him without effort, gazing into the fury of that brightening sky. The field thrashing in unison with itself, half-lit in mauve, half-lit in moon’s stare.
She rose—a foot, two, three—drawn toward something within the expanse. Liphart swung the rifle to his eye, mashed the trigger once, twice. Shards exploded like shattered mirrors from her torso, and as she descended, razors swam through Liphart’s hands, his arms wracked with electric agony. He winced, frozen with pain, and wept at her approach, her dress whipping in the manufactured wind. The powder flowed from the house and broke around Liphart in a current. Marianne looked into him, face expressionless as the swirling debris crystalized, repadding the wounds in her form. Her eyes and mouth ever-deepening voids. How he’d missed the eyes of his daughter. Marianne grew as she approached. Fish-belly skin stretched taut over her protruding facial bones.
God brought home…to me, Liphart thought, and he crawled toward her, despite the pain. This, the sounding of angels…tidings of great joy. God was answeringhim, speaking as in the days of Abraham and Noah. How foolish to forget He worked in mysterious ways. Liphart’s soul swelled with joy. He wept there and lifted his arms to Marianne, who towered over him and the house now, needing to be held like he was forgiven.
And there, in a sky rippling with the chorus of angels, he rose with his daughter. Her wriggling hair refracting heaven’s light. Her rippling mouth speaking in a tongue he didn’t understand, but felt that with time, he would. His vision blurred in the white heat, and the corpse fell from his daughter’s hand, writhing as it descended to the narrowing road. And as Marianne fastened the rope around Liphart’s throat, he heard the angels declare with almighty authority: Do not be afraid.
Scott J. Moses is the author of Non-Practicing Cultist (Demain Publishing). A member of the Horror Writers Association, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cosmic Horror Monthly, The NoSleep Podcast, Planet Scumm, and elsewhere. He also edited What One Wouldn’t Do: An Anthology on the Lengths One Might Go To. His debut novella, Our Own Unique Affliction, is slated for release in early 2023 via DarkLit Press. He is Japanese American and lives in Maryland. You can find him on Twitter @scottj_moses or at www.scottjmoses.com.